Yes, it gets better.

The sad and disturbing increase in gay teen suicides is depressing, but the response to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project is nothing less than inspiring.

Watching the It Gets Better Canada video, the descriptions of gay life in high school echoed my own experience growing up in Australia.

No, I’m not gay. I’m not even a visible minority; you’d be hard pressed to find a more pasty-faced WASP outside of Wales.

My defect, so to speak, was that I wasn’t Australian.

I pray that things have changed, but in 1970s-era Oz was extremely xenophobic. If you weren’t born and raised in “The Lucky Country,” you were an intruder.

I was four when we moved to Tasmania, but my Canadian accent earned me the nickname “Yank” or “Seppo” (Australia rhyming slang for septic tank = Yank). And trying to point out that Canada and America were separate countries didn’t win me friends.

When I turned 11, my mother pulled me and my sister out of school and we spent a glorious year playing hooky in England.

I no longer had to read boring textbooks dictated by the school system. My mother took us to museums and art galleries, ballets and fringe plays, concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, and street festivals in Covent Garden and Hyde Park. It was the most culturally-enriching year of my life.

When we returned to Australia a year later, I’d swapped my Tasmanian-Canuck accent for a plummy marbles-in-the-mouth “toff” one. Once again, I was the subject of abuse at my new school.

No one would sit with me at lunch, an agonizing hour that felt like a lifetime. I did my best to avoid eye contact, and tried to hide in the library as long as I could. Boys called me a “fucking Pom” and girls made fun of my haircut and “daggy” clothes.

Perhaps worse than my accent, though, was the fact that I actually enjoyed learning. I excelled in English, Music, Art, History and Geography, but subjects like these are anaethema to Australians. It’s probably the most sports-centric nation on earth – and I was terrible at Phys Ed.

Kids put chewing gum in my hair, wrote nasty graffiti on my locker and around the school, tripped me up and made fun of me in class. I cried almost every day for two years, and begged my mother to take me out of school again.

The only kid whose life was more hellish was the school’s only Jewish kid, Benny.

The beatings, both physical and verbal, that he endured on a daily basis made me wonder how he didn’t commit suicide. And while I didn’t join in the verbal attacks, I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t befriend him, either.

Things let up when we moved again, and I was put in an all-girls school in Wollongong. Without all the rampant testosterone, I was finally allowed to be myself in peace.

A year later I came to Canada. The first questions I asked my first Toronto friend were, “What poisonous snakes and spiders should I be aware of, and what kind of initiation ceremonies do schools have for new kids?”

Thankfully I enrolled in Central Tech’s art program, where for the first time in my life I was surrounded by other artists, oddballs and outsiders. I was so happy after my first day, I almost cried again, this time with relief.

But as miserable as my school years were, I can’t imagine the pain and fear that must go with growing up gay. Even in a liberal environment like Toronto, the pressure to conform from parents, as well as bullying students, must be overwhelming.

To all of my friends, gay or straight, flamboyant, eccentric, and unique, I’m grateful to have you in my life. Thank God we made it here.

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Remembering George

This year I had the great fortune to work with someone truly gifted. His name? George Hickenlooper.

My art director, Shelley, and I were sifting through a pile of director’s reels when I saw his name on the case.

“With a name like Hickenlooper, he’s gotta be good,” I joked.

I put the disc in my computer. The first thing on the reel was a scene of Kevin Spacey doing his best Kevin Spacey impression in a mirror.

I checked the disc. There must be some mistake.

I clicked to the next spot on the reel. It was a clip of William H. Macy. I clicked again, and there was Woody Allen. What? The f*ck?

At the end of the reel was a 10-minute clip of Guy Pearce and Sienna Miller from Factory Girl.

By now Shelley and I were in stitches. It had to be a joke.

The script we’d sent out was basic, to put it kindly. No Old Spice-guy-on-a-boat hijinks; ours was a straightforward slice-of-life commercial, though we managed to sneak in a faint whisper of humour.

But who were we kidding? If this guy had really worked with all these stars, why the hell would he want to bid on our little job? Knowing we had a snowflake’s chance in hell of working with him, we put his name on the list anyway.

When we got off the phone with George and his producer, Shelley and I were dumbfounded. He was smart, soft-spoken, and most mind-blowing of all, excited about the job.

After 20 years in the ad biz, I’ve heard my share of phony pitches and feigned enthusiasm.

George was utterly genuine.

When we met him in casting, he didn’t at all match my image of a high-flying director. He was polite and reserved, but his sense of humour and love of film were immediately apparent.

He took photos of all of us on his iPhone. I couldn’t understand why, when he also had photos of so many well-known celebrities.

“Add me on facebook!” he beamed.

I did, and was stunned to find his friend list read like a Hollywood Who’s Who: Alec Baldwin, Roger Ebert, Illeana Douglas, Joaquin Phoenix, Ben Stiller…and me.

George was terrific on set. Even though we were shooting French and English, which normally means overtime, we finished ahead of schedule. He had a quiet but commanding presence, and the shoot went smoothly. His attention to detail was evident in every frame. The client was ecstatic.

Afterwards we went for drinks. Like rabid fans, Shelley and I gave him our favourite films to autograph: Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about Apocalypse Now, and Factory Girl. He signed them with a flourish.

On his last night in Toronto, he told us how excited he was to premiere his new film, Casino Jack, at TIFF in September. “You’ll have to come!” he said, and true to his word, we got tickets when the festival rolled around.

The film stars Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramoff, and it was obvious at the premiere that George was in awe of his lead actor.

Looking at George’s facebook photos, I was often struck by the “kid-in-a-candy-store” look on his face, whether he was standing with Tom Ford, William H. Macy or Barack Obama. He never seemed jaded or blasé, but retained an almost childlike enthusiasm for his art.

It was a shock then, to hear that George died on Friday, right before the premiere of Casino Jack in Denver. He was 47.

Only last week I saw Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Committed. It follows the lives of four filmmakers, including George, as they show their films at the Toronto International Film Festival.

In one scene, where George is getting his hair cut, he says, “I worry that death will be boring.”

Not a chance, George. Not a chance.

Feel Good Inc.

A lot of people who’ve probably never read a book on nutrition are shocked by the movie Food Inc. I think that’s a good thing.

It’s good to question long-held habits and beliefs, in my opinion. But there are companies out there who want to change your opinion about their product or service for specious reasons.

I’m talking about the new wave of do-good, feel-good advertising.

The Nescafé “Brew some good” campaign uses cheap footage shot on video. We’re told, via supers, that they donated money to children’s charities instead of making an expensive commercial.

It’s nice that they donated that money to charity. But there’s something about using charity to get me to like your product that doesn’t quite sit right with me.

Pepsi’s Refresh Project is another example. You can vote online for how you think they should spend their charitable dollars. One of the options is ways to “Refresh the Gulf.”

If chugging carbonated water with 10 teaspoons of sugar would help clean up the oil spill, I might do it. I’m just not sure I see the connection.

Kia’s new campaign uses time-lapse photography to show how they transformed a concrete jungle into a kids’ playground. It almost seems like a PSA, except for the Kia conspicuously parked in frame.

Hellmann’s, purveyors of fat in a jar, started a “Real Food Movement.” They’re encouraging people to eat locally, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that a lot of local produce is genetically modified – like the soybean oil that’s the main ingredient in Hellmann’s.

And of course, the Dove Self-Esteem Fund helps girls feel better about their body image. Events like the Dove Sleepover For Self-Esteem and Dove-branded “educational” materials for Moms drive home the idea that Dove is benevolent.

I’ve discussed my feelings about Dove and Unilever at length here, so I’ll only say it’s too bad their products are toxic.

Product formulations aside, there is some good being done by these companies. So why don’t I feel good?

When the Tropicana “Arctic Sun” commercial first aired, I thought for sure most people would see it as I did: a self-serving excuse to promote Tropicana.

I might have been able to stomach the spot, if not for the gratuitous shots of Tropicana crates being unloaded and Inuvik people drinking the product.

To me it represented the very worst of the ad biz: an event masquerading as a public service, but with no real benefit for the people involved and a very large one for the company funding it. I thought a line had finally been crossed.

I was wrong, of course.

The spot won gold at every award show, including Cannes, where it was lauded as though it were a Nobel Peace Prize contender.

You may think I’m overreacting. After all, it’s not like they were using doctors to sell cigarettes. But no matter how I tried, I just couldn’t see it as anything other than a PR stunt. One that used very poor, very isolated people to make Tropicana look like heroes.

What’s amazing is that the Whopper Virgins campaign got slammed for doing something similar months earlier.

In the end, maybe feel-good tactics do benefit some people. But the only reason advertisers change their marketing is always the same: profits.

Maria Soklis, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Kia Canada had this to say about their new  campaign:

“Drive Change will be the conduit to heightening our brand awareness by reaching out to establish an emotional connection with consumers through both traditional and social media, thus differentiating Kia from other automotive manufacturers.”

The key word is “consumers.” Not people mind you, but potential customers.

If you think Pepsi or Kia or Dove is a beneficent company, chances are you’ll buy their brand next time you’re in the market.

And perhaps their competitors don’t deserve your money. But that doesn’t mean they do, either.

Book Review: Born On A Blue Day

Born On A Blue Day: Inside The Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant is the story Daniel Tammet.

The Raleigh News & Observer calls it “Remarkable, revealing, and nearly flawless.”
“Honest, eloquent” raves The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
“Yawn.” – Me

Turns out his autism is plain old Asperger’s syndrome.

Big whoop.

Try growing up with four siblings, four of whom have Asperger’s. Only no one’s heard of Asperger’s yet, so you think that you’re the freak.

With my steady job, ability to make eye contact and lack of criminal record, I’ve been the object of ridicule in my family for years.

My sister Janet was the Acid Queen of Yorkville in the ’60s. She and her husband made LSD in their bathtub, and kept $100 bills stacked in the freezer.

At least it wasn’t body parts.

She got busted eventually, of course. When the RCMP arrested her, she demanded to go to the washroom – alone – and calmly flushed the evidence down the toilet.

(I, on the other hand, couldn’t bring home stickers I found at school without tearfully confessing to my parents.)

Twenty years later she was busted again, this time for bilking the Old Age Pension.

Apparently she took the names of dead people from gravestones and used their I.D. I say “apparently” because we’ve never discussed it; I found out from co-workers who saw it on the news.

Janet’s disdain for the law is balanced by a bizarre reverence for etiquette. Talking too loud, saying “can” instead of “may,” and chewing gum in public are all serious offenses.

So it’s only natural that next in line is my loud, slang-talking, gum-chewing sister, Marion.

For as long as I can remember, Marion’s been a magnet for chaos. From losing her wallet on Christmas Eve, to contracting Legionnaire’s Disease at work, to getting evicted when her roommate turned their home into a crack den, if something can go wrong, it will, usually in spectacular fashion.

A writer by trade, Marion has lived most of her life in a one-room flat. Compared to Janet she seems pretty normal, until you look at her circle of friends: astrologers, compulsive gamblers, schizophrenics, professional lab rats, and nuttiest of all, other writers.

Where Marion’s heavily into the occult – she was married to a palm reader – our brother Lloyd is a card-carrying atheist.

Like many people with Asperger’s, he has a limited range of interests. Or should I say, interest. He’s spent the last 40 years in his basement, building and programming computers.

Whether from the isolation, the Asperger’s, or both, his social skills are pretty sketchy. Dinners at his place involve me smiling awkwardly at his wife while Lloyd sits, eyes closed, and complains about the “terrible food.”

But what he lacks in diplomacy, he makes up for with deadpan humour. I’ve cried more than once for taking his jokes seriously.

SFX: (phone ringing)

“Hello?”

“Hey, I’ve got a great idea for making a lot of money. It’s simple. I just hack in to the banks’ computers and take a penny from every account electronically. They’ll never know.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No. (pause) You’re an accomplice now, by the way.”

“WHAT?! Why?”

“Because you listened.”

I might’ve laughed if our sister wasn’t Janet.

Then there’s Sitara, a.k.a. Astrid, a.k.a. Batul, Samantha, Lynn, Judith, Maude and Derede. The last time I saw her, she was standing on the corner in a Muslim robe, clutching a Fendi handbag.

“Hey Sitara, how’re things?”

She smiled. “I’d be fine if I could just assassinate George Bush!”

“Great. Well, see you around.”

Sitara is closest to me in age, but we couldn’t be further apart. When I was obsessed with Snoopy and Woodstock, Sitara was reading Chaucer and writing in iambic pentameter. She also talked to fences, and was prone to public outbursts.

Before Sitara was diagnosed with Asperger’s, I blamed her eccentricity in part on her birth name. Who wouldn’t be fucked up with a name like Derede?

“It’s Greek for Dorothy,” Mom would explain when people asked.

Why she didn’t just name her Dorothy is a mystery best explained by the fact that our mother also has Asperger’s.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Smart but not a genius, creative but unfocused, I spent years trying to gain my family’s approval. Then one night as I was flipping channels, I saw John Bradshaw.

He looked and sounded like a TV evangelist. I’d always been fascinated with Jim and Tammy Bakker, so I stopped to listen.

“Watch out for the black sheep of the family,” he said. “Chances are they said, ‘I’m getting out of here, these people are crazy!'”

The words hit me like a lightning bolt. You mean it’s OK to not be like the rest of my family? In that moment, everything changed. Now I accept myself and my family as individuals who just happen to be related.

But back to Tammet.

No question, he has an amazing mind. Thanks to a condition called synesthesia, he sees numbers as physical landscapes, and in 2004 he memorised Pi to 22,500 decimal places. He also speaks ten languages, including Esperanto.

All in all, I recommend Born On A Blue Day if you want to know more about Asperger’s.

Or you can just visit my family.

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The Fan

SFX: (phone ringing)

MG: WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT NOW, C*NT!?!

TH: Hello, Mel?

MG: Who’s this?

TH: It’s Tony.

MG: (confused) Danza?

TH: No, Tony Hayward. Head of BP. (pause) British Petroleum? Perhaps you’ve heard of it. (nervous chuckle) We had a little…thing. In the Gulf. The oil…

MG: How did you get this fucking number?

TH: Dickie Cheney gave it to me. Look, I won’t keep me; my Escalade’s running outside.

MG: So what, you wanna make a film about oil?

TH: Sadly There Will Be Blood beat me to it. No, I just wanted to say a heartfelt thank-you. Thanks to you, I’ve got my life back.

MG: Is this a fucking joke?

TH: Honestly, I just…really wanted to express my admiration.

I thought monumental gaffes like “The environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest,” and “We had too many people that were working to save the world” would stick in the public’s mind forever.

But you…you’ve taken PR problems to a whole new level. Well played, sir.

MG: Fuck off, you cocksucking Limey twat.

TH: I don’t suppose you’d autograph my copy of The Road Warrior?

MG: C*NT.

SFX: (dial tone)

TH: What a lovely man.

American Pie

There’s an ad right now that grabs my attention whenever I see it.

Maybe it’s the spareness of the layout: just a photo of a young woman lying on a beach, and a logo.

Or maybe it’s the fact that her back is arched so severely she looks like a scoliosis patient.

Either way, I didn’t know much about American Apparel until recently. I’d read that their clothing is “sweatshop-free,” which was almost enough to make me consider buying a t-shirt there one time years ago.

I’d also heard that they use their employees in ads, because they  like to promote a “real” image.

Then I happened to read about their employee appearance code. I decided to check out their web site, to see if I could find some more ads online.

This first example features another unfortunate victim of spinal problems.

It’s not enough that her is head fused to her shoulders; her torso sits cruelly sideways on top of her legs, and a single hand – more of a flipper, really – sticks forlornly out of her stomach.

I gave a silent prayer of thanks for Dov Charney, the Canadian founder of American Apparel. Despite the girl’s horrifying disfigurement, it’s heartening to know she found gainful employment with such a progressive employer.

This next ad is for something called a “romper.” Just the thing for wearing to swinger’s clubs, or meeting a client in your home office, like the young lady here.

And finally, in case I still wasn’t sure what they’re really selling, they spelled it out for me in neon.

Thanks, American Apparel, for giving young women everywhere something to aspire to.

And Now For Something Completely Indifferent

A friend of mine wrote a house ad years ago that was stunning in its simplicity.

It was a double-page spread, an unheard-of expense for an agency to purchase for themselves. The left-hand side was jammed with words in 48-point type; the kind of stuff you see in ads for car dealerships, cheap furniture, and electronics warehouses.

On the right was a sea of white space. In teeny, tiny type were the words, “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

That ad could run today.

I have a theory that 99% of ad agencies share a single brief. Someone – a planner perhaps, or the account director’s wife – comes up with a thought that makes them go “Aha!”

They jot it down, type it up, and hand it out at work the next day. Everyone looks at the brief and nods. Then they make copies and send them out to every other agency, and no one writes a new brief for the next five years.

Usually the brief can be summed up in one word.

Fifteen years ago, the word was “Badge.” Everything from cars to chocolate bars could be viewed as a badge by consumers. I know this because I worked on Ford and Hershey, and that’s what the briefs I got told me.

Ten years ago, the new buzz word was “Empowerment.”

At the time I worked on the direct trading arm of BMO. It made sense to me that people who invested for themselves would feel empowered by InvestorLine.

Then I was given an identical brief for Monster.ca.

I told myself it was just a coincidence that I worked on two empowering accounts. Curious, I plunked in “writer” to see what kind of jobs Monster offered. Let’s just say I didn’t leave the site feeling empowered.

It wasn’t until the empowerment brief for Canada Savings Bonds that I started to wonder if the Brief-O-Matic really existed.

At the time, CSBs (as the cool clients called ’em) were earning less than 1% interest, or half the cost of inflation. Somehow buying bonds that earned negative interest just didn’t seem very empowering.

I mentioned it to one of the other writers. He looked at me with jaundiced eyes. “You mean you got the empowerment brief, too?”

Thankfully, agencies finally realised that no one believed driving a Plymouth, eating a Twizzler, or giving all their money to the government was empowering anyone in the slightest.

Which brings me to today’s word. (Get ready to scream real loud, kids!)

Riding home, two transit ads caught my attention. Not because they were different, but because they were so similar.

In an unfortunate (some would say amusing) turn of events, ads for RBC bank and ads for Bell are running side by side in subway stations.

Both ads feature blue type on white. Both ads are urging people to “Switch.” And the RBC ad even ends with the URL “rbc.com/better.” Kind of like all those Bell ads that ended with “bell.ca/better.”

Not to be outdone, TD bank is running an in-subway campaign entitled “Reasons To Switch.”

Yes, I’m ranting. But I don’t know any creative teams who like to write boring ads. And when every brief has the same angle, the same so-called insights, the same “me-too” voice, then writers and art directors aren’t the only ones who switch off.